“A Pile of Dead Leaves”

Raymond Queneau (1903-1976)

Raymond Queneau has been known to me for some time: I read We Always Treat Women Too Well (1947) twice. But now that I have finished The Last Days: A Novel (1936), I think I have discovered a major talent.

The Last Days is the story of what one might call a social cohort, a group of people of varying ages who know each other to varying degrees. Interestingly, there are only two women in the cohort, Suze and Fabie, and they enter in only insofar as they have relationships with the males. Some of the males are students who are trying to study for a diploma in philosophy from the École Normale Supérieure; one is an aging teacher of history; another is a con man; and there are other various hangers-on. The one truly superior figure is the waiter Albert, who has everything all figured out, as described by his co-worker, Louis:

He didn’t only know how to see the future. He was also a philosopher. A real one. He used to say to me: “You see, the customers, they’re like a pile of dead leaves.”

I asked him why. He answered. “Leaves, when they’re on the tree, if you didn’t know that autumn existed you might think they’d stay there forever. That’s like our customers. They come back every day as regular as clockwork: you think they’ll go on doing so forever. But then one day the wind blows as carries the leaves off to the gutters and the street sweepers make little piles of them on the edge of the pavements to await the dust-cart. Me too, every year I make my little pile when the autumn arrives, my little pile of dead souls.”

Albert’s one goal in life is to win back the money that his father lost at the races: No more, just enough to live a comfortable life in retirement, and not a sou more. And he actually manages to do this, returning to work at the café the next day.

The others, such as the student from Le Havre, Vincent Turquedenne, manage to lose their virginity, hang out with their friends, and even get their diploma. The history teacher—feeling he spent his whole life teaching geography while he himself never traveled—dies and has a magnificent funeral. The con man figures he would be immortal if he never laid down, because that’s what kills one, but then gets sick and is put to death and, of course, dies.

There is a simple beauty to this story that makes me want to read more of Queneau’s work. Fortunately, a lot of it is available.

 

The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

The title of this post comes from Tim Kreider, who used it in a New Yorker article on October 20, 2013.  The book begins slowly:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

On the face of it, the novel, Stoner, by John Williams (1922-1994), does not appear to be promising. And yet, to my mind, it is one of the best American novels written after World War II.

Williams gives us a story of a life in academia, where the politics are particularly awful. I myself had wanted to become a professor of film history and criticism, but was so disgusted by the infighting at the Theater Arts Department of UCLA that I fled to the corporate world and concentrated instead on computers.

William Stoner marries a young woman who catches his attention at a party. It does not take more than a month before he discovers that his marriage is a failure. He and his wife Edith have a daughter named Grace, toward whom Edith acts strangely and inconsistently over the years, leading to Grace getting pregnant and moving away from home.

Author John Williams

Author John Williams

The English department at Stoner’s University of Missouri is headed by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes chairman and begins a career-long feud with Stoner after he flunks one of Lomax’s protegées.

In his forties, Professor Stoner enters an affair with a beautiful young colleague, but is pressured by Lomax to either stop it or resign his post.

In the end, Stoner develops cancer and dies.

So what’s the big deal? Several things. First of all, the book is shockingly true to life. Stoner falls into his profession because, originally enrolled as an agriculture major, he falls in love with English literature. Again and again, he lurches from one decision to the next with a shrug, almost, and finds enjoyment where he can—even when there is no consolation from his work or home life. Even as he dies from a cancer that has metastasized throughout his system, he evinces not a moment of fear, but yields to the necessities of his disintegrating body.

Williams’s style is a thing of beauty. As Krieder wrote in his 2003 article:

[Stoner’s] ambition is evident in the apparent humility of its subject: like Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, it’s to be nothing more or less than the story of a life. And there is something in even those first paragraphs, an un-show-off-y assurance in the prose, like the soft opening notes of a virtuoso or the first casual gestures of a master artist, that tells us we are in the presence not just of a great writer but of something more—someone who knows life, who maybe even understands it. It’s the same thing I sense in reading James Salter: the presence of wisdom. And wisdom is, of course, perennially out of style.

Especially among postwar writers, there is a tendency to tart things up so that the work coruscates with some special grace irrespective of its appropriateness to the subject. Williams comes at you straight and tells you what this man’s life is like.

Williams wrote only three other novels other than Stoner:

  • Nothing But the Night (1948), which is out of print
  • Butcher’s Crossing (1960), a Western, and …
  • Augustus (1972), an epistolary novel about the Roman Emperor Augustus

The latter two are available from New York Review, as is Stoner.

One-Trick Ponies

Many Countries Are Too Small or Obscure for More Than One Great Writer

Many Countries Are Too Small or Obscure for More Than One Great Writer

The photo above is of a snake devouring a lizard in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco, one of the most desolate areas on earth. And yet Paraguay gave birth to Augusto Roa Bastos (1917-2005), author of  The Son of Man and I the Supreme, two works that would be better known if their author were not from Paraguay.

Iceland’s claim to fame is the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Halldór Kiljan Laxness (1902-1998), who wrote many novels that were translated into English, the most famous of which is Independent People. And yet his name is frequently mentioned by people who are carping about the Nobel Prize Committee’s penchant for obscure works. In this case, however, they were dead wrong; and the critics have some learning to do.

Talk about obscure, what about Bosnia? That little country’s literary star is Ivo Andrić  (1892-1975), whose most famous work is The Bridge on the Drina, a work which I think is necessary if you want to understand the tragic and horribly snarled history of the Balkans.

Augusto Roa Bastos

Augusto Roa Bastos

The doyen of South African literature is J. M. Coetzee (1940-Present), author of Waiting for the Barbarians and other excellent novels, plus several penetrating collections of literary essays.

Peru’s most famous author is Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-Present) who is his country’s only Nobelist, and who is also famous for having beaten up Colombia’s most famous author Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) in an argument over a woman’s honor. Gave him quite a shiner, in fact!

I guess the point I am trying to make is that it’s worth the effort to go farther afield than those well-traveled paths through the United States, England, and France. I made made many literary discoveries in strange places—a practice which I definitely intend to continue.

A corollary to this: There are many small countries which have rich literatures. Hungary and Portugal immediately come to mind. But there is also Australia, which I am finding is quite the treasure trove.

 

[Not] The Nobel Prize for Literature

Yet Another Great Writer Who Never Received a Nobel

Yet Another Great Writer Who Never Received a Nobel

I don’t have too much good to say about the Swedish Academy, which decides who will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you look at the list of its recipients, it would not take too much effort to produce a list of as great as or even greater literary figures who have not received the laureate. Let me take a stab at it:

  • Kobo Abe (Japan), Woman in the Dunes
  • Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Things Fall Apart
  • Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Japan), Rashomon
  • Jorge Amado (Brazil), Gabriela: Clove and Cinnamon
  • W. H. Auden (UK), Poetry
  • Georges Bernanos (France), Mouchette
  • Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), Ficciones
  • Joseph Conrad (UK/Poland), Nostromo
  • Richard Flanagan (Australia), The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  • Graham Greene (UK), The Heart of the Matter
  • Vassili Grossman (Russia), Life and Fate
  • Henry James (US/UK), The Ambassadors
  • James Joyce (Ireland), Ulysses
  • Yashar Kemal (Turkey), Memed, My Hawk
  • Gyula Krúdy (Hungary), The Red Post Coach
  • Stanislaw Lem (Poland), Solaris
  • Osip Mandelstam (Russia), Poetry
  • Vladimir Nabokov (US/Russia), Lolita
  • Fernando Pessoa (Portugal), The Book of Disquiet
  • Marcel Proust (France), In Search of Lost Time
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Russia), Roadside Picnic
  • Italo Svevo (Slovenia), Confessions of Zeno
  • Leo Tolstoy (Russia), Novels and Stories
  • Mark Twain (US), Novels and Stories
  • Evelyn Waugh (UK), Brideshead Revisited
  • Virginia Woolf (UK), Mrs Dalloway

As you can see, I have not overloaded the list with the names of American authors, in the interests of being fair. If I wanted to, I can add names like Philip Roth, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and a few others.

These can replace such figures as the following, whose reputations have not kept up with the times: Bjornsterne Bjornson, José Echegaray, Giosue Carducci, Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Paul von Heyse, Verner von Heidenstam, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontopiddan, Carl Spitteler, Jacinto Benavente, Grazia Deledda, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Pearl S. Buck, Frans Eemil Sillanpaa [SIC], Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, Earl Russell, and a few dozen others—mostly Scandinavian nonentities which at one time were highly thought of by a couple dozen mouldy Swedish academics. (Please forgive me for being lax about the diacritical marks in the above names.)

 

 

Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Russian Novels

What Country Produces the Best Literature?

What Country Produces the Best Literature?

All the blog posts in this series are based on Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland, Patagonia, Quebec), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); locales associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), foods I love (Olives), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the weeks to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today the letter is “R” for Russian Novels.

I’ll come right out and say that, over the last two hundred years, Russia has produced the world’s best prose fiction. (They might well also have produced the greatest poetry, but I cannot judge as I do not know the language.) In addition to the 19th century titans—Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy—there are other greats whose work continues to amaze me. I am thinking of Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Nikolai Leskov, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, and Mikhail Lermontov,

Despite the travails of the Communist Century, Russian novels continued to be the best in the world, what with authors like Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Rybakov, Victor Serge (even though he wrote in French), Vladimir Nabokov, Vassily Grossman, Victor Zamyatin, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Andrey Gelasimov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Andrey Platonov, Ivan Bunin, Varlam Shalamov, and Sergei Lukyanenko.

And these are just the ones I’ve read! KI suspect I could find another dozen if only I lived long enough.

The most difficult thing most people find about Russian novels is the names of the characters. Let’s take for example the name of one of the major characters in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov is he youngest son of Fyodor Karamazov and bears his father’s first name in his patronymic (Fyodorovich). In addition to being called Alexei Fyodorovich, you are likely to see him called by one of his nicknames, which include Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha, and Lyoshenka—all depending on who is speaking. After a few decades, you get used to the nicknames. No longer do I ask myself, “Is Dostoyevsky introducing another character here?”

Also, Russian novels are likely to be l-o-n-g. That’s all right with me, because I usually get so wrapped up in the stories that I almost don’t notice it.

If you want to get started, I suggest you pick something more nearly contemporary, such as Sergeyyi Lukyanenko’s eerie Night Watch, with its vampires and witches. (The Russian movie based on it is also worth seeing.)

So, enjoy yourselves, and give my regards to Nevsky Prospekt!

Under Brinkie’s Brae

Alfred Street in Stromness

I have been to Stromness in Orkney twice, once in 1976 and again in 1998. It is a strange little town with narrow winding streets—and, oh yes, a great poet and storyteller who lived here until his death in 1996. I am talking about George Mackay Brown (b. 1921), whose work I have been reading since I met him outside the town’s bookstore in 1976 while clutching a copy of his poem collection, Fishermen with Ploughs.

Tongue-tied, I asked him whether he was George Mackay Brown, knowing full well that he was, as his likeness was familiar to me. He smiled and said, “I cannot deny it.” If my heart were not in my throat, I would have invited him out for a pint. As it was, I showed him my book, being even too shy to ask for his autograph. We went our separate ways.

What I hope to accomplish here in my blogging here on WordPress is what Brown accomplished in a weekly column he wrote for The Orcadian, a newspaper published in Kirkwall, some fifteen miles eastward. Just to give you an idea of the flavor of his work, here is one of his essays entitled “Place names”:

I was sitting idly in the sun the other afternoon when seemingly out of the blue, the words “Orkney Islands” came into my mind. A waste of syllables, really: since Orkney itself means Orc islands. The fault is what is called, I think, tautology. (Whether “Orc” means whale, or seal, or boar, I leave to the experts to decide.)

That’s not the only tautology in our list of place names. “Houton Head”—the Hout part itself signifies headland (like Howth promontory outside Dublin).

Another misnomer is Brough of Birsay. Possibly the whole parish derives its name from the tidal island where there was originally a keep or fortification of some kind.

The very south end of Stromness is called the Point of Ness; which is to say, “the point of the point,” Ness meaning a piece of land thrusting into the sea: in this case, into the tiderace of Hoy Sound. That is why Stromness is called what it is. Living in the town itself, this is not so obvious. But coming down the Scorradale Road into Orphir, there it lies, a thrust of hard land into the wide strong waters. (Maybe the Norseman who gave Stromness its name was looking west one day from the Orphir foothills.)

Brown’s little essay goes on and names other places in the archipelago, ending with “Hrossey,” the island of the horse, which was the original name of what is today called the Orkney “mainland,” though it is by no means a mainland, but just the largest of the isles off the north end of Caithness.

I have just finished the second volume of Brown’s columns for The Orcadian, called Under Brinkie’s Brae, after the hillside overlooking the east end of Stromness. The pieces were charming and often quite lyrical, full of northern Scots words such as “haar,” “peedie,” “noust,” “Hogmanay” (that’s New Years), “clapshot” (mashed “tatties” and “neeps” with a liberal infusion of butter).

To get to Orkney, you have to take the slow train from Inverness to Thurso, and thence via a short bus ride to Scrabster, where the roll-on roll-off ferry St. Ola will transport you past the Old Man of Hoy to Stromness. There you will find an austere land almost entirely devoid of trees (the wind is so fierce). On Orkney, you will never be far from the sea, and you will never be far from George Mackay Brown, the poet of Hamnavoe (the old Norse name for Stromness).

“I Did Not Want To Become Slight and Fantastic”

As I … meditated the direction of modern poetry, my discouragement blackened. It seemed to me that Mallarmé and his followers, renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate on the music of poetry, had turned off the road into a narrowing lane…. Idea had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; perhaps at last words might have to go or give up their meaning, nothing be left but musical syllables…. I was standing there like a God-forsaken man-of-letters, making my final decision not to become a “modern.” I did not want to become slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible.—Robinson Jeffers, Preface to Roan Stallion